The Polabian Slavs: A History of a Vanquished People
Not all of history’s tales have a happy ending. In fact, most of them are rife with sad fates and great turmoil, with the ruthless passage of time erasing entire nations. One of these tales it that of the Polabian Slavs . Westernmost of all Slavic tribes, these warriors and traders struggled for survival through their entire existence. Known also as the Pomeranians or the Baltic Slavs, they were fundamental in the historical development of western and central Europe, and the emergence of Germany, from whom they suffered centuries of competition. Join us as we uncovered the history of these diverse Slavic tribes about whose ethnogenesis there is a wealth of information and who remain a subject of active research to this day. What was the fate of these tribes? And, what have they left behind? The truth can be easier to discover than you might think.
Early History of the Polabian Slavs
The name Polabian Slavs is an umbrella term for all the various Slavic tribes that dwelt on the westernmost reaches of Slavic habitation alongside the Elbe river in today’s Eastern Germany. This name itself is Slavic, a cognate of po + labe , meaning “by the River Elbe”. The territory of these tribes spanned from the Baltic Sea in the north, to the Elbe and Saale rivers in the west, up to the Lower Jutland peninsula’s Sachsenwall in the north-west, and south towards the regions of the Czechs and Poles.
Together with the rest of the Slavic world located in central, southern, and eastern Europe, they formed an almost unified continuum of Slavonic cultures and peoples that shows us an important insight into their migrations, connections, and the emergence of modern Slavic nations. With an almost unified and unbroken border between north and south Europe, these Slavic tribes shared common knowledge and were largely united, contrary to what was previously believed.
The Polabian Slavic tribes dwelt alongside the Elbe river, seen here in winter, located in modern eastern Germany. ( MJ Fotografie / Adobe Stock)
Polabian Slavs and Their Settlement of Modern Germany
The earliest settlement of Slavs in what is modern Germany took place in the early 6 th century AD. After the so-called Migration Period that began in Europe in the 1 st century AD and lasted to circa 500 AD, the regions we mentioned above were largely left unsettled and empty. With the increasing numbers and regular migration of Slavic tribes, many of these drifted westwards, and settled alongside the numerous rivers in Germany, as was a common trait of the Slavs.
Nowadays, the original source of all Slavic tribes is fiercely debated, but new research shows that they could have developed over a much larger area of Europe than was previously believed. A powerful clue for this are the toponyms that are shared with Slavic regions to the north and south, as well as the mentions in Frankish and Byzantine early medieval sources that paint a clear picture of regular Slavic migrations across Europe.
From their settlement in the 6 th century, these Slavic tribes steadily developed in this new region. They preserved their identity to the fullest, retaining several key Proto-Slavic traits, both linguistically and culturally. Skillfully adapting to their surroundings, and always defending themselves from their warlike Germanic neighbors, Polabian Slavs chose strategic solutions for their villages and forts. An enormous percentage of known Slavic gords – or forts – in the Elbe river vicinity was built almost exclusively at hard-to-reach locations, mostly on small lake islands. They built their villages using a circular setup, making them easy to defend. This trait remains even today amongst some Slavic minorities in Germany, of which we shall speak more.
Westernmost of all Slavic tribes, the Polabian Slavs struggled for survival through their entire existence. ( Public domain )
Brethren, Cousins, and Family Feuds: The Polabian Slavic Tribes
Numerous Polabian Slavic tribes are recorded, both large and small. We shall mention those most important and crucial in the historic development of this region. The primary Polabian tribe were the Obodrites. Their name is purely Slavic, and either comes from the Slavic word *bodrity or *obodriti, from Proto-Slavic root *bъ̀drъ, all meaning “to support”, “to encourage”, “to bolster”. Another explanation for the name is far simpler: relating to the river Oder, and meaning “those beyond the Oder River”. The Obodrites developed into a confederation that included smaller tribes such as Travnyans, the Drevans, Wagrians, and Warnowers.
Further to their east, on the Baltic shores, were the Veleti, also called the Wilzi and Lyutici. This group was comprised of several smaller tribes, chief amongst them being the Circipani, Hyzhany, and the Ratari. Other tribes worth mentioning, further to the south, such as the Glinyani, Rechany, Doshany, Ruyani, Sorby, and many others.
The Polabian Slavs were firm believers in the Pagan pantheon, including Perun and Veles, depicted here during their legendary battle. ( Russian Culture )
Pagan Pantheon of the Polabian Slavs
It is known that the Polabian Slavic tribes placed great emphasis on the Pagan pantheon , and that each major tribe had their own protector-deity, one that was part of a Slavic pantheon shared by all tribes. For example, the main town and the political center of the tribe of Ratari (Redarians), was Radigast. The town was named after the common Slavic god of hospitality, Radigost (also known as Radigast, Radegost or Radgosc), and he was also the protector-god of the tribe.
A Christian emissary, Adam of Bremen, wrote about the cult worship of this god, describing that it was worshiped in a wooden temple that was raised on a mound of animal horns. Besides several wood idols of gods, a stallion was kept in the temple at all times. Either black or white, the stallion was sacred to the god, and was used as an oracle for important events, such as battles. Each major tribe and town had such a temple, with a horse, albeit devoted to a different god, for example to Perun, Veles, Svetovid (Swantewit), or Swarozych.
Otto the Great quashed the Slavic rebellion led by Obodrite ruler Nakon in 955 at the Battle of Raxa River, forcing them to adopt Christianity. ( Public domain )
Subjugation to the Franks and the Danes
All Polabian Slavs were in contact with, and subdued to the Franks, although their relationship was never 100% clear. Furthermore, the Franks relied on a divide and conquer strategy, often enlisting different Slavic tribes to fight against one another. In this vein there was the so-called Sorbian (a.k.a. Serbian) March, a frontier region of East Francia, that was created in the 9 th century to protect the borders from the restless Sorbian tribes. From the 9 th to the 11 th centuries, this region was the location of numerous Slavic insurrections. We also know that Charlemagne used the Obodrite Slavs in his own campaigns against the Saxons in the lower Jutland peninsula. They were his allies for several decades, warring not only against the Saxons, but against Slavs as well, particularly the Veleti.
At this point, it’s worth concentrating on the Obodrites. From circa 808 to 1200, this tribe was a focal point of the region. Allied to the Carolingian Kings , they were the enemies of the Danes, who sought to rule the Baltic Region. The Obodrites were powerful and somewhat unpredictable. On several occasions they rebelled or rose up against their allies in the hope of seizing greater power. For example, the Obodrite ruler Slavomir abandoned his alliance with the Franks and joined the rebelling Serbs, only to end up captured and abandoned. His successor, Ceadrag, also rebelled against his Frankish allies and allied himself with the Danes, but later switched back.
An important event occurred several decades afterwards. In the mid 900’s, the Obodrite ruler Nakon and his brother Stoigniew led a Slavic rebellion against the Germans. They were defeated in 955 at the Battle of Raxa River, by the German King and Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great . After this defeat, Nako was forced to adopt Christianity. But – famously stubborn – the Slavs abandoned Christianity several times in the following decades.
The Wendish Crusade was a major military campaign, conducted by the Kingdom of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, directed against the Polabian Slavs (called the Wends by the Germans). ( Public domain )
The Obodrite Confederation and the Fall of Polabian Slavs
One of the most important figures of the Obodrites, and the Polabian Slavs in general, was Niklot, the chief of the Obodrite Confederacy. He led this confederation into a widespread revolt against the German King Lothar III and his Danish vassal Prince Canute during the 1120’s. Even now, the Polabians held to their Pagan gods . Niklot, for example, renounced Christianity and reverted to Pagan belief. Betrayed by his Saxon allies, Niklot was murdered, and his lands partitioned between the Christians.
His son, Pribislav, accepted the sovereignty of the Holy Roman Empire and became a vassal, accepting Christian faith and becoming the first Prince of Mecklenburg, recovering a part of the Slavic territories in Mecklenburg. The emerging House of Mecklenburg would develop into one of Germany’s most powerful and influential noble houses, and would end up to be one of the last ruling noble houses of Europe, being abolished in 1918. After the baptism of Pribislav and his acceptance of German rule, a gradual process of Germanization began for the Polabian Slavs, who gradually lost their identity.
Even before the death of famed Niklot the Polabian Slavs in general, and not just the Obodrites, suffered greatly against the increasing pressures of the Danes and the Germans. In 1147, the so-called Wendish Crusade began, a major military campaign of the Kingdom of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, directed exclusively against the Polabian Slavs (called the Wends by the Germans). German archbishoprics placed increased pressures against the majorly pagan Slavs and sought to convert them to Christianity – by any means possible. With Niklot’s preemptive actions against the Crusaders, and the Pope’s call for action, the region was embroiled in a major struggle for power, much to the disadvantage of the Slavs. In the end, after suffering expulsions, destructions, forceful conversions, and even death, the Polabian Slavs were Catholicized. Thus began their gradual assimilation into the German culture.
Christianization and Assimilation Under German Domination
In the end, the pressure was too much for the Polabian Slavs. The increasing power of the Germans and the Holy Roman Empire, paired with internal strife, was too much to bear. The centuries that followed after their Christianization saw their gradual assimilation. Amongst the last of their tribes to fall were the Rani or Rujani. They inhabited the Rügen (Rujan) island off the coast of Pomerania, and boasted one of the most powerful Slavic cult religious sites, called Arkona. This powerful fort fell to the Danes in 1168, when King Valdemar sacked it and toppled the pagan idols which stood there. After this, the Rani prince Jaromar became a Christian and a vassal to the Danes.
The only tribe that has retained some vestige of their identity in modern times are the Sorbs. Although suffering the same processes of assimilation as the others, they managed to preserve some of their culture in the region of Lusatia. Today, they are a minority in Germany, and are split into the Lower and Upper Sorbs. Their language belongs to the West Slavic group and shares similarities with Polish, Serbian and Czech, although being markedly different.
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Other tribes weren’t as lucky as the Sorbs. They were all assimilated by the Germans, losing their culture and language. The last speaker of a Polabian language died in the early 18 th century, speaking the Drevani Polabian dialect. With their death, the language died also, although a limited vocabulary is preserved in various writings.
Even so, the remnants of the Polabian Slavs remain for all to see. The Eastern half of today’s Germany is filled to the brim with Slavic toponyms, especially in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern region. Moreover, some of Germany’s most important cities were founded by the Polabian Slavs, and their names remain fully Slavic. These Slavic towns include: Berlin, Rostock ( Rastoke), Schwerin ( Zwieryn), Neubranderburg ( Branibor), Güstrow ( Guščerov), Wismar ( Wyszemir), Neustrelitz ( Strelica), Oldenburg ( Starigrad), Lübeck ( Liubice), Bautzen ( Budyšin), Cottbus ( Chóśebuz), Luckau, Kamenz ( Kamenica), and many, many more.
Remnants of the Polabian Slavs can still be found around the Elbe river vicinity, where they chose strategic solutions to build Slavic gords – or forts – at hard-to-reach locations using a circular setup, making them easy to defend. ( Aufwind-Luftbilder / Adobe Stock)
Vae Vitis : The Fate of the Polabian Slavs
If you reflect upon the sad fate of the Polabian Slav nation and their assimilation, you have to wonder to what extent has their culture really disappeared? How much of today’s eastern Germany is actually inhabited by German people, and not Slavs who have over time adopted German culture and its language? Either way, history once more provides us with a unique perspective in relation to one of Europe’s major nations, bringing to mind the famous expression: Vae Victis (Woe to the Conquered). For it is the victor who decides the future of a nation, and can make its culture and customs disappear at their whim. As long as we can remember, we can preserve. This Slavic tale deserves to be heard and the history of the Polabian Slavs must not be forgotten: a nation and its people cannot so easily disappear.
Top image: Amongst the last of the Polabian Slav tribes to fall were the Rani who boasted one of the most powerful Slavic cult religious sites, called Arkona. This powerful fort fell to the Danes in 1168, when King Valdemar sacked it and toppled the pagan idols which stood there. Source: Public domain
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